Idealism: a global phenomenon

Idealism knows few national boundaries.

Students at Tsinghua University and other schools in China would see eye-to-eye (better, heart-to-heart) with many in the U.S. on this. A 22-year-old grad student of mine in Beijing showed this in spades in a recent English-language speech competition. Her outrage at injustice, her sympathy for those in distress, and her hopes for change could make her a soulmate of my 23-year-old daughter back in Chicago. Continents, oceans or economic and political systems seem not to separate them intellectually.

My student – call her “Blossom” – took on Apple Computer, a company hugely popular in China. She faulted its reliance on Chinese suppliers whose working conditions have been linked to suicides, workplace fatalities and illness-inducing toxic chemicals. Her anger at conditions she branded “inhumane” was palpable and she was unsparing in her criticism, saying Apple had failed in its social responsibilities. She also took aim at fellow Chinese, bemoaning the idea that contestants at speaking competitions, blind to problems, have routinely extolled Steve Jobs for how he “thought differently and changed the world.”

“Blossom” went further. She faulted globalization, pointing her young finger at big companies and consumers alike. “Multinationals choose suppliers with the cheapest labor and the highest efficiency, regardless of their safety standard,” she argued. “Customers care about the ink of ‘designed in Cupertino’ or the Silicon Valley, instead of the words right below it, ‘Made in China.’ Globalization institutionalizes global ignorance.”

And she called for change. Supplier information – accidents, suicides, etc. – should be made public, she argued. Invoking Justice Brandeis’ contention that sunlight is the best disinfectant, she argued, “the multinationals would be embarrassed and therefore [would pressure] the supplier to change.” Policing by government and NGO advocacy groups should be encouraged. And, she added, “As consumers, every one of us can do our bit: keep watch for suspect brands and refuse to consume immoral products.” Indeed, “Blossom” argued that every iPhone should come with a photo of its assembler. “That could serve as a reminder that an actual, living, breathing person used their own hands to help make this product. Let’s give the cold technology a human face. We will all be better off for it.”

In fairness, I must note that Apple does seem troubled by its subcontractors. It applies a code of conduct to suppliers, audits their behavior and says worker protections and factory conditions have improved at many facilities throughout its supply base. Problems, however, persist, according to reports by the company itself, as relayed by the Telegraph. Underage workers, excessive hours and other problems evade even Apple’s efforts to drive change — something that may reflect different cultural attitudes among nations, as well varying levels of economic development. Remember that capitalism is still young in China, poverty is rampant, and it took the West decades to outlaw the practices that trouble Westerners and “Blossom” alike.

Nonetheless, I’m blown away by how like my youngest child this young Chinese woman is. Reared in a country whose values seem so foreign, “Blossom” brings a kind heart and a keen eye to the world she sees around her – just like my Abi. My daughter now works to help homeless people in Chicago get back into the social system. She supported Occupy Chicago. Her criticisms of global capitalism – which we often argue about — throb with an idealist’s heart just as big as “Blossom’s.”

As globalization grows and such young people take on bigger roles in the system in coming years, I expect they will bear the torch for change. I hope they do so, whether they work within or outside multinationals. While we graybeards may quibble with some of their arguments and solutions, their passions for justice and decency should inspire us all. Over time, life may cool the fires they now burn with — but I’m in no hurry to see that happen. And I hope the Ab and “Blossom” someday can meet to see how much more unites them than divides them.

2 Replies to “Idealism: a global phenomenon”

  1. From “Tommy Fitch”:
    I was on the NYC subway the other day heading to a meeting in a big corporate law office at Times Square. As I left the Metrocard machine, I noticed a backpack wearing individual practically on the subway floor as he knelt down to interpret the subway route map of Manhattan. The short-haired individual was not wearing sandals, but regular shoes. Probably due to the colder weather, and the distance that he traveled. He appeared to be heading to some type of a cause, some type of a protest, he was traveling lightly. I walked over to him and said “Where are you heading? Can I help you?”. He came to his feet, and replied that he is looking to get to Zuccotti Park; the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests. I said “Where are you from?”, as I noticed an official Press pass around the front of his neck, in a leather casing. He said that I am coming from the Occupy protests in Phoenix, and then Detroit; Phoenix is where he is from. He said that the Occupy NYC protests are where the action is now. This was on November 16th of this year. I noticed the sincerity and enthusiasm in this young man’s self, as he travels across the country to support his cause.
    He and I referred to the Subway wall map together, and he said that I think its south of here; we were on 34th street. I pointed to the map and explained to him the concept of Uptown and Downtown, to supplement his knowledge of North and South. It appeared to be the first time that he heard the concept that New Yorkers refer to everyday. I pointed to the map and explained to him the route that he will need to take to get to where he is going. As I shook his hand, I said “Be careful with the NYC police, show them respect”, he eagerly replied, “They are with us, the cops are with us”. I said “Good luck, and be safe”. We parted ways to our very different destinations, destinations that are worlds apart. Worlds apart, but yet in the same city. The nomadic traveler from Phoenix wants the same as I do; the same as you do, the same as the lawyers in the conference room overlooking Times Square do. We want fairness.
    The following day, I was grabbing a slice of pizza at a local restaurant. As I waited in the booth for my food to cook, I noticed that CNN was on. CNN was broadcasting live from Zuccotti Park, broadcasting violence between the NYC police and the Occupy NYC protesters. The banner under the picture read “300 arrested in violent clashes at Occupy NYC protests”. I then thought of my fellow American who I met yesterday from Phoenix, who arrived in NYC yesterday to join the movement. I could not help but feel concern for his safety and well-being. We are all in this world together.

  2. From Donna Shear:
    I agree that you want your children to have that passion and idealism at that age. Later on, you want them to be able to appreciate that it was their parents’ hard work that allowed them to go to the finest schools to get the finest educations so that they could come out and work for slave wages to help the poor and disenfranchised.

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